Sunday 20 January 2019

Facts not complimentary for Kildare in Croker - O'Neill

O'Neill: "Maybe the issue isn’t just Croke Park, it’s how we deal with tight matches." Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A return to Allianz League Division 1 football, a first match with Dublin in Croke Park and inevitably a Kildare manager is going to be pressed on the county's dismal record in this fixture in recent times.

In four of their last five meetings - two league (2013 and 2014), two championship (2013 and 2015) - the margin has stretched to double figures. In last year's Leinster final it was down to nine. What's different about Kildare's record to the four-in-a-row-chasing All-Ireland champions? Why does it draw more focus than others?

Their general record in Croke Park has not been good and O'Neill concedes that "from a confidence perspective" it has to be an issue.

But he offers an alternative view, that the county has just been coming out on the wrong side of tight matches.


"The facts aren't very complimentary in terms of our performances in Croke Park. But if you put them in context the only time we are in Croke Park is when we are in big matches, one was a Division 3 final, one was a Division 2 final, one was a Leinster final.

"So when you look at the matches that we lost, it wasn't just a random match or a match within a league campaign. What was disappointing was that most of the matches were ones that we could have won, maybe the issue isn't just Croke Park, it's how we deal with tight matches.

"In the last two years since I came we have lost seven games and with the exception of the big two, Dublin (2017) and Mayo (2016), we haven't lost a match by more than one score and that includes two league finals and Westmeath in 2016.

"Most of those matches have been one point. If you look at it through a different lens, you can ask why are we losing tight matches as opposed to why we are losing in Croke Park."

O'Neill sees "logic" in the view that so early in the season is the optimum time to be playing Dublin. "You need to be careful what you wish for. That's been thrown out there. There's logic to it. They are only back a couple of weeks from holidays but, that being said, Dublin have been involved for the last three years in September when no other team has. Okay, Mayo have been for two of those three years but they've got a lot more exposure to high-quality training and performances at the back end of the season.

"They haven't got as much work done at the front end but my understanding is that they got a nice bit done before Christmas, whether that's in their pods or whatever.

"Dublin have never fielded a weak team or a team that doesn't know how to win. We have to put in a massive performance, bigger than any performance that we have put in in my three years and see if that's good enough to beat them."

The lessons of their 2016 Leinster semi-final defeat to Westmeath, when he acknowledged they had played with something in mind for a Leinster final against Dublin, has been taken on board.

"We got caught two years ago. Because we were planning a style tactically to play Dublin in a Leinster final. That was a mistake. I still think our performance could have got us into that match but I think the one-match-at-a-time approach and worrying about Dublin or Kerry or Tyrone when you meet them is the rational way to go.

"You do have the top-tier teams. But I don't think there's as much between the middle-tier teams as people think there is."

Kildare's supporters have high expectations but survival is the priority over the next few weeks. "You have a very passionate, demanding Kildare fan base for a county that has had very little success in the last 90 years. But they love their football and they love being at matches and shouting the team on.


"But to maintain our position in Division 1, to show that we can compete with those teams - I don't think we're at the level yet where we can say we should be in Division 1 finals. I'm not saying that's unattainable either. But you have to be realistic. I would be nice to maintain that. And the players would grow in confidence then, because they have been able to compete then (on) two, three, four days out of seven with the top teams."

He accepts there may be harsh lessons ahead but shedding their inconsistency will be a big target.

"Division 1 teams, by right of being here for many years, are ruthless by nature. They'll punish every single, sloppy mistake you make. It happened in the Leinster final last year. We had a good defensive performance in the league campaign, we only conceded three goals. But then, in a few minutes of madness, we conceded two soft goals because the top teams can be ruthless when they need to be. So we'll learn. It could be the hard way, it could be just by progression but we'll learn to be a more focused team across 70 minutes."

O'Neill hopes to have close to a full-strength team for the Dublin challenge provided a number of players involved with Carlow IT and Maynooth University come through Sigerson Cup games next Tuesday.

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